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Sunday, 27 August, 2000, 23:31 GMT 00:31 UK
Arctic mouse alert in northern outpost
North Pole
Svalbard is just 550 miles from the North Pole
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby in Spitsbergen, Svalbard

One of only four land mammals found in the Arctic territory of Svalbard is at the centre of a health alert.

The Svalbard field mouse, Microtus epiroticus, has been found to harbour a parasite that can cause fatal liver cysts.

The Svalbard administration is to offer blood tests to the islands' children, and says it needs to do more to minimise the risk.

Two scientists are already known to have tested positive for the parasite. One of them had worked in the area most at risk for only one day.

Polar bear
The polar bear is one of only four land mammals on the islands
Svalbard, an island group in the high Arctic which lies about 550 miles from the North Pole, is part of Norway.

It has only four mammal species: the mouse, the Arctic fox, the Svalbard reindeer (a distinct sub-species), and a population of polar bears.

The mouse is believed to have arrived on Svalbard in the 1920s from eastern Europe, where it is common today.

It lives mainly in a number of abandoned settlements, with its largest concentration in the Grumant area between Spitsbergen and the Russian settlement of Barentsburg.

Both Norway and Russia continue to mine coal on Svalbard, and relations between the two nationalities are friendly.

The mouse was found in 1999 to be host to a parasite, a tiny tapeworm, which in its adult phase lives in the small intestines of dogs, foxes and other canine species.

Animals acquire the parasite by eating the mice. The dogs excrete the tapeworm's eggs, and people who then ingest them - for instance after stroking a dog - are at risk.

The eggs travel to the liver, hatch out, and can then cause cysts which are often fatal if not detected and removed.

Health warning

One of the two scientists on Svalbard found to be infected had been working with Arctic foxes. It can take up to 15 years for the disease to manifest itself.

The director of the Norwegian universities' study centre on Svalbard, Lasse Loennum, has written to about 100 former students who had worked in the Grumant area since 1996, warning them of the risk and urging them to be tested.

The head of environmental protection for the governor of Svalbard is Carl Erik Kilander.

He told BBC News Online: "We are concerned at the situation, but not terrified. It's a small minority of people here who could be at risk."

The resident population of Svalbard is probably under 3,000, but about 14,000 tourists visit the islands every year.

Residents have been warned to wash their hands after touching dogs or foxes, and to boil water taken from streams and rivers, something they have not done before because the Arctic environment is regarded as pristine.

Scientists have been told to wear rubber gloves when working with foxes. Dogs in the main settlement, Longyearbyen, have all been tested: most are huskies or Greenland dogs used for hauling sledges.

But no formal warning has been issued to tourists. Mr Kilander said: "We could do more to inform tourists in a systematic way. I don't know of anything like that being done."

The parasite can also survive in cats. They are forbidden on Svalbard, though the Russians are known to keep some in Barentsburg.

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25 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
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